On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 260 N.J. Super. 390 (1992).
For reversal and reinstatement -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, J.
The primary question presented in this appeal is whether a teacher's one-year maternity leave creates a vacancy for purposes of N.J.S.A. 18A:28-12. We hold that it does not, and therefore reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and reinstate the decision of the State Board of Education.
The facts are undisputed. Plaintiff, Catherine Lammers, a tenured English teacher in the Point Pleasant Borough school system, lost her position as a result of a reduction in force (RIF). Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:28-12, the Point Pleasant Borough Board of Education (local Board) placed Lammers on a preferred eligibility list for rehiring. Shortly thereafter, the local Board granted a one-year maternity leave of absence to another tenured English teacher, but did not hire Lammers to fill that position. Rather, the local Board hired a non-tenured teacher as a "long-term substitute" to fill that position. Lammers filed a petition of appeal with the Commissioner of Education, claiming that the local Board had violated N.J.S.A. 18A:28-12 when it did not rehire her.
The local Board contended that it had not violated Lammers' rights because the teacher's maternity leave had not created a vacancy within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 18A:28-12. After reviewing
cross motions for summary decisions, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) determined that the local Board had violated Lammers' tenure rights. The Commissioner of Education adopted the ALJ's decision. The local Board then appealed to the State Board of Education (State Board), which reversed the Commissioner's decision.
The State Board found that the local Board was not required to hire Lammers for the position because no vacancy existed. Lammers appealed to the Appellate Division, which reversed the State Board's decision. The State Board then filed a motion for reconsideration, which was granted. In a revised opinion, the Appellate Division again concluded that the one-year maternity leave had created a "temporary vacancy," which constituted a vacancy within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 18A:28-12. 260 N.J. Super. 390, 616 A.2d 1293 (1992).
We granted the State Board's petition for certification, 133 N.J. 438, 627 A.2d 1143 (1993), and now reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division.
We find that a one-year leave of absence does not create a vacancy or temporary vacancy under N.J.S.A. 18A:28-12. That section provides in pertinent part:
If any teaching staff member shall be dismissed as a result of [a RIF], such person shall be and remain upon a preferred eligible list in the order of seniority for reemployment whenever a vacancy occurs in a position for which such person shall be qualified and he shall be reemployed by the body causing dismissal, if and when such vacancy occurs * * *. (Emphasis added).
The Legislature's plain intent was that a RIFFED teacher's entitlement to a position arises only when a vacancy exists. The specific question we face now is whether a temporary one-year absence of a tenured teacher creates a vacancy. If it does not, then Ms. Lammers has no statutory entitlement to the position of the absent tenured teacher.
The interpretation of any statute necessarily begins with consideration of its plain language. ...